by Rev. Mike Denton, Conference Minister for the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ

In 1888, a huge snowstorm hit the US that no one saw coming. At that point and time, weather prediction was in its earliest stages and the primary weather information that was available came from looking at the sky, factoring in the wind direction, and guessing whether or not the clouds you saw on the horizon might be coming your way. In some areas, the day started with clear skies and mild temperatures but, within a couple of hours, temperatures plunged into the twenties, two feet of snow fell quickly, and the wind started to blow hard enough to cause snowdrifts that were 10-50 feet high. Transportation and communication were down for days. At least 400 people who were caught in the storm lost their lives. This storm and a few others that came afterward, spurred on the creation of weather early warning systems that helped people know when a storm was coming so that they could prepare for it, have emergency supplies, limit their travel, and stay at home.

Our public health system was created out of similar experiences with historical health problems. Their job is to let us know about health risks so that we can plan and adjust our behaviors accordingly.

The information about the COVID-19 virus is unfolding quickly and yesterday afternoon new guidance came from the King County Health Department recommending this: “If you can feasibly avoid bringing large groups of people together, consider postponing events and gatherings.

In the United Church of Christ, congregations have the autonomy to determine their own governance, process, and worship decisions. You might have heard me say before that I can make strong suggestions but I can’t tell you what to do.

With that said, I suggest in the strongest way possible that our churches pay special attention to – and follow the guidance and recommendations from – local, regional, and state health departments. For any church in King County or any other region that has been or will be given similar recommendations, that means that I’m specifically suggesting to you that you not have in-person worship and cancel face-to-face church gatherings and meetings until given guidance that it’s OK to so. I’m also suggesting that you have conversations with other groups that use your building about doing the same. I don’t make this suggestion lightly have done it only after conversations with health professionals, colleagues, and many of you.

I recognize that this suggestion comes during a time of anxiety for many and I do it with the full knowledge and recognition of the secondary effects if you choose to follow this suggestion (relational, financial, etc.). We’re feeling this in conference institutional life, too and I’ll have more to share with you about that, soon.

However, this suggestion is truly about more than fear and anxiety. It is actually a suggestion full of optimism and gratitude.  On Tuesday, Governor Inslee shard the current estimate that somewhere in the range of 500-3000 people are already carriers of or infected with the COVID-19 virus. If nothing’s done, the current projections are that these numbers will double every seven days. However, our public health departments are making recommendations to help us get ahead of this possibility and to prevent others from becoming sick and dying. By working together and following the advice of our public health departments, we have a chance of ending this outbreak and helping save dozens of lives. That, my siblings in Christ, is holy, sacred work.

Yesterday, I ended my update to all of you with Micah 6:8; a scripture we’ve used frequently as part of our conference life in recent recent years. It’s also worth taking a look at the words that come before it:
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Being together for worship and ritual are vital parts of our life together but Micah suggests that it shouldn’t get in the way of doing justice, doing acts of loving-kindness, and walking humbly with God. Heeding the recommendations of our public health departments and canceling in-person worship is ultimately an act of justice, kindness, and wisdom. It is a temporary step but an important one.

On the other side of this outbreak, I look forward to the celebration of worshiping with you in the same physical space, again. I look forward to celebrating those among us, in our communities, and our families who remained healthy because of our decisions. I look forward to celebrating all the creative ways we found to be present for each other even when we couldn’t be present with each other. There will be some anxiety and grief in the coming days but there are also opportunities for hope.